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Tech Powers Social Good - the Enablers, Protectors, Healers and Eco-Warriors to Watch

17/02/2014 13:54 GMT | Updated 17/02/2014 13:59 GMT

I'm always scouring the web, news and events circuit for the fascinating advances in technology that have high potential for social impact. Some just prompt me to stop and think "Now that's just both useful and clever".

Particularly where it is leveraged for wider social good, technology is a very powerful 'enabler' - a Connector, Catalyst and Conduit.

I'd love to share some of the companies and technologies that I'm currently excited about. These guys are leading the charge, but are just a few of the many ones to watch. Let's just dive straight into it.

THE HEALERS

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Cancer genomics pros Foundation Medicine examine and sequence the DNA of a patient's tumour sample, allowing cancer patients to receive therapies targeted specifically to them More here.

Last year, the FDA approved the first prosthetic for the eyes by revolutionary company Second Sight. Capable of restoring some level of sight to the blind, this implant is simply game-changing. Together with my editorial team, I rated their Argus 2 bionic eye implant as one of the seven most futuristic devices of 2013 - take a look at the article here for a video and photo.

Echo Therapeutics in Philadephia are working on swapping needles for patches in patients with diabetes, a disease that requires constant drawing of blood (glucose levels, insulin shots). Their tech is a "transdermal biosensor that reads blood analytes through the skin without drawing blood". The reading is then sent wirelessly to a remote monitor, kicking off an alarm when levels shoot up. It's a work-in-progress but a very worthy one. Find out more here.

THE PROTECTORS

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Created by cyber security outfit Eleven Paths, Latch is a clever app for consumers that helps prevent data theft and accounts being hacked. It lets you switch access to your online accounts on and off, adding a valuable extra layer of security. You can specify access to your bank account, email or twitter account solely at the exact time when you need to use it, preventing unauthorised use for the times when you're offline and blissfully unaware of someone hacking your precious details. Try it out here.

At the world's largest 24*7 tech festival Campus Party late last year (video interview with 10 brilliant speakers from the event here), I heard first-hand from the founder of Blaze, a startup that's produced a laserlight for cyclists looking to tackle what appears to be most common cause of cycling accidents - vehicles turning into the path of a vulnerable cyclist that hasn't been seen. The device throws out a green laser bike symbol 5-6 metres onto the road, visually alerting others to their presence. Check it out here.

Talk about real-life Halo. Augmented reality - transposing virtual images onto your real life view - has remarkable potential for the military. German company Rheinmetall produce the dramatically titled Gladius, a helmet-mounted display for soldiers that gives them real-time info on their missions and tracking threats. Check out this article for the full low down.

Also, another notable mention is Innovega who debuted iOptik at the recent CES 2014 summit. It projects the same heads-up display function of Google Glasses onto your contact lenses. See more here. Pilots and firefighters will also see great use from augmented reality apps and devices.

THE ENABLERS

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At yearly summit Wired 2013 last year, I watched Suneet Singh Tuli talk the audience through how the idea came about for his creation - Aakash, a £25 tablet computer for the Indian market. The goal? Provide low-cost computing to students for educational purposes. This is potentially transformative in terms of giving access to education in a country where the disparity between the haves and have-nots remains shocking. At the time of writing, handset manufacturers in the country were in the process of bidding for the order. "It's not that the poor don't know that the way out of poverty is through education, it's that they can't afford it" he explains empathically. Watch a video of him in action here

Deepak Ravindran's mobile company Innoz is smart. Really smart. It's an offline search engine, again for India, allowing millions to connect to the internet without real internet connectivity. Their SMS search service has handled 1.3 billion (and counting) queries thus far. Flagship product 55444 aims at taking the mantle of the 'world's largest offline search engine in 2015 with 10 million unique users and more than 55 million searches per day'. Explore it here.

Again at Wired last year, I was instantly riveted by Walter de Brouwer's proposition - put the power of monitoring your health vitals in your hands. Scanadu is a device packed with sensors, equipping you to measure not just your heart rate, temperature or blood pressure in a whizz, but also digging deeper to give you your oximetry, ECG waves and heart rate variability. It could cut down visits to the doctor, send you armed with the right info if you do need to see one and take some panic out of a situation where a parent, child or close friend is suddenly unwell. More here.

Two already-mainstream names still worth highlighting are Ushahidi (using apps to crowd source info during natural disasters and crises) and Khan Academy who pioneered the concept of putting free video tutorials online to cut down barriers to education.

THE ECO-WARRIORS

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Boston-based biotech startup Greenlight Biosciences are deploying a technology to create cleaner, more affordable chemicals using cell-free biomanufacturing. To demystify the concept, read this MIT Tech Review piece profiling the startup.

Seattle-based startup Alta Rock are working on technology that aims to use fracking to generate carbon-free electricity and heat to get more out of geothermal plants. The full low-down is here.

ClearSign Combustion use electric fields to cut down pollution from power plants by 'manipulating' the combustion. This could have great implications in poor countries. They claim this technology could reduce fuel consumption by 30%. Read 'Flame-Shaping Electric Fields Could Make Power Plants Cleaner' .

Technology isn't just "for the geeks" or the tech-minded. It's a phenomenal tool that can spark economic change and boost social progress. Yes, it can be hard to keep up with its relentless pace, but each day the intense, fervoured commitment of tech pioneers, educators and startups founders is replacing inefficient, outmoded ways - particularly in developing nations - to unveil better, faster, more powerful ways to deliver help to the communities that need it the most.

Comments on this piece? Welcomed via @tefdigital

Also check out the innovation hub I curate if you're curious!

(Note: Photos purchased by author from Shutterstock.com)